Who is responsible for happiness at work?

The order of the elephant
The Order of the Elephant. This little guy helped turn around a childrens hospital ward from an unhappy workplace to a very happy one.

Helle Schier, a soft-spoken, engaging woman in her mid-twenties was excited. She’d just graduated from nursing school, and had already gotten her first job as a nurse at Odense University Hospital.

But when she told a friend that she was going to work at H4, a childrens ward, her friend’s reaction was “Well, I’m not sure if I should congratulate you.” It turned out that H4 had quite a reputation. The nurses rarely helped each other out. The doctors disliked the nurses and that was very much mutual. The nurses disliked the administrative staff who in turn didn’t feel their work was being appreciated. It was not a happy place to work.

Helle still started working there with a positive attitude, but was soon forced to agree: It was a horrible place, and working there was getting her down. She didn’t like her job at all, didn’t feel productive and started to question whether being a nurse was right for her at all.

But Helle wouldn’t put up with it and she wouldn’t quit. She decided she would do something about it.

Whose responsibility?

Whose job is it to make you happy at work? Your manager’s? Your co-workers’? The company’s? Yours?

I hate to say it, but the ultimate responsibility for your happiness at work, can only lie with you. You are responsible for your own happiness at work for three reasons:

  1. Happiness at work is a feeling, an emotion. It’s something totally inside of you. Only you can truly know whether you’re happy at work or how happy. Only you know if things are fine, or if something needs to change.
  2. Happiness at work is individual. Only you know that it takes to to make you happy at work. Therefore you are responsible for making sure you have what you need to be happy.
  3. Making yourself happy at work can entail some tough choices. It may mean quitting and finding a new job. It may mean taking on an unpleasant conflict, because not taking that conflict would be even worse. It may mean battling existing corporate culture and values. No one but you can make the decision whether or not to do these things. The choice is your, the responsibility is yours.

For those reasons, the final responsiblity for you happiness at work can only lie with you.

The manager’s responsibility

The excellent book Freedom and accountability at work by Peter Koestenbaum and Peter Block looks at existential philosophy, and applies it to the business world. This quote from that book talks about motivation but the exact same point goes for happiness at work:

We currently act as if people are not inherently motivated, rather that they go to work each day and wait for someone else to light their fire. This belief is common among managers and employees alike…

It is right and human for managers to care about the motivation and morale of their people, it is just that they are not the cause of it. Managers should ask for feedback from employees about how they could improve as managers, but they ask this out of their own interest and desire to learn, not for the sake of the employee.

Of course your manager has a huge influence on your happiness at work, but the ultimate responsibility is yours.

A manager’s responsibility is this: To create an environment at work in which it’s easy to be happy. Whether or not employees take this opportunity is up to them, and you simply can’t force people to be happy.

Obviously some managers fail completely at this, and instead manage to create atmospheres of mistrust, apathy, desperation and/or cutthroat competition. These managers are failing their responsibility to happiness at work.

Other managers create a mood of happiness, positivity, openness and team-work and still find that some employees reamin unhappy. That is not the manager’s responsibility, and it never could be.

The company’s responsibility

I once talked to a group of employees from Novo, one of Denmarks largest companies, and a very good employer. There’s almost no limit to what they will do for their employees including gyms, good food, training, fresh fruit and much, much more.

But this group had a serious beef and were not satisfied. Why, they wanted to know, did the company christmas present to the employees always contain red wine. Some of us prefer white, you know!!

Top management’s responsibility is to enable managers to create that atmosphere where it’s easy to be happy at work. But as the above story from Novo shows, no matter how well you do, you can’t force people to actually be happy. That is still their own responsibility.

Also the company has a responsibility to prioritize, value and reward happiness at work. It’s no use for a company to say “we want people to be happy at work”, and then turn around and reward things like overwork, ruthlessness and a traditional authoritarian management style.

A good example to avoid is the following from Tom Markert, the global chief marketing and client service officer at ACNielsen, taken from his book “You Can’t Win a Fight With Your Boss”:

You can forget lunch breaks. You can’t make money for a company while you’re eating lunch . . . if you don’t put in the hours, someone just as smart and clever as you will. Fact of life: the strong survive.

[If you ignore this] you might just end up as roadkill – lying dead by the side of the corporate highway as others drive right past you.

I have always made a habit of walking around early and late to personally see who’s pumping it out. If they are getting results and working harder than everyone else, I promote them.

This kind of approach from top executives means they’ve failed their responsibility to happiness at work, and are actively creating an atmosphere of stress, overwork and dog-eat-dog competition.

The co-worker’s responsibility

Helle got together with three other nurses from H4, all fresh out of nursing school, and they decided to do something about it and make H4 a happy workplace. They first talked to the head nurse and got her to give them a day off, in which to come up with some ideas. What they came up with was simple. First a summer party for the staff at H4. Nothing fancy, just a garden barbecue and some silly hats. This let people met each other outside of work and established some positive personal relations.

Next they focused on praise, and established the order of the elephant. It’s a small elephant plush toy that they can pin to their uniforms. It works like this: Whenever they think a co-worker has done something special, they give that person the elephant. They also write in a journal why that person received the elephant. The journal contains entries like these:

Happy at work award 2005“It makes a great difference whether Vibeke is at work or not. She makes sure everything is tidy in the office, which is a huge help for us nurses.”

“It’s difficult to pick one person to give the elephant to, but I’m giving it to Nina, because she is always calm, even in stressful situations and because she is so competent.”

“I think everybody at H4 deserves en elephant, but today I’m giving it to Joan because she’s so great at playing with the children, big and small.”

This worked especially well, and soon people started noticing a difference at H4. The doctors, the nurses, the head nurse, and perhaps especially the children in the ward and their families.

Your co-workers are not responsible for your happiness at work either, and thinking “I’ll be happy at work as soon as Susan stops talking loudly on the phone, John stops always criticizing people and Martin stops gossiping” will get you nowhere.

Your co-workers and you have a responsibility to work together to create an atmosphere where it’s easy to be happy at work. But as before, whether people choose to be happy in that good atmosphere is ultimately their own responsibility.

Your responsibility

As a result of the simple things helle and her co-workers did, H4 is now a happy place to work, and the four nurses who got the ball rolling are teaching other departments at the hospital how to do the same. They’re known inside and outside of H4 as “the happy girls”.

The nurses are feeling a difference. The doctors have noticed it. And the children admitted to ward and their parents have noticed a huge difference in the mood and the quality of the care given.

In 2005 the happy girls won the “Happy at Work Award”, an award given to a person or a group who have done something extraordinary to make people happy at work.

You’re responsible for your happiness at work. It’s that simple.

Something will happen when you do something. As long as you sit on your butt waiting for your colleagues, manager and company to make you happy, nothing will happen.

And you CAN make a difference. The story from the H4 ward shows that it doesn’t take huge resources, management backup, outside consultants or a lot of time. It takes a willingness to take responsibility yourself and do something about it.

This doesn’t mean that you have to go it alone. Do like Helle did, and get other people excited about happiness at work. This makes it much easier.

But don’t wait for others to do it for you. As Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead put it:

Somebody has to do something, and it’s just incredibly pathetic that it has to be us.

2 thoughts on “Who is responsible for happiness at work?”

  1. When I was young (not that I’m old already), I believed that I would be happy at work, but the workplaces I’ve worked in proved me wrong…

    That’s until I started reading this book =)

    Now I’m trying to figure out what to do to improve my work-life and my workplace. I’m still afraid of “taking on an unpleasant conflict” with an authoritharian manager we have here that goes here and there critizising, yelling (and even firing) everyone (any suggestions?).

    I work in the “creative” department (electronic design) of a company, and the effects of a happy environment can be easily noticed (if we manage to create one), but what about the workers that are “expected” to do repeat 1000 times a day the same activity. Is there anything I can do for them, or a reason I can use to convince management to even “let me try” to create a happy work-place for them?

    I’m interested in your ideas, but it seems that projektarbejdsglaede is not available in english yet =). If you like, can you write me an e-mail?

  2. Well Jach, you raise some interesting questions.

    As for handling a conflict with an abusive manager, that is one of the great challenges in a workplace. You can try to reason with him, but abusive people rarely listen to reason. You can try to go to his boss and explain the situation, but if he finds out, you’re in even more trouble.

    I think that the best tool in such a situation is knowing yourself and knowing your limits, ie. what you will or won’t stand for. And when someone steps over your limits, let them know.

    One excellent way of telling people diificult messages is giraffe language, aka nonviolent communication. It has a silly, but it’s a great, easy, practical communication tool. You can read about it here: http://www.yesmagazine.org/article.asp?ID=837

    Also remember that some conflicts are so entrenched, that they require outside help in the form of mediation.

    As for people with non-creative jobs, I can promise you they can be just as happy at work. They can still enjoy nice colleagues, nice managers and a good work environment.

    And if you ask me, the whole division into creative and not creative is a mistake. If you ask them, some of them probably have some great ideas about how the company could be even more efficient and would be happy to contribute these.

    Read Life on the line by Solange de Santis for an insight into that.

    I’ve sent you an email – let’s talk more :o)

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